Friday, 27 September 2019

The Brain Watkins Garden Flora: Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea, Brain Watkins House, c.1966
Image from the Brain Watkins House Collection
The bougainvillea needs little introduction in Tauranga as it grows well in our temperate climate. Its brightly coloured branches scramble through many an archway, trellis and fence throughout the city.

A fine old specimen of bougainvillea grows in the backyard at Brain Watkins House. It has a multi-leadered trunk and the ever lengthening stems are kept under control by an annual trim. The date of planting is unknown but a photograph taken in 1966, when Elva Brain was in residence, shows it as a mature specimen with flowering stems arching over the now demolished outside laundry. The shrub has a similar appearance today, some 53 years later.

Photograph by Anne Marquand
The distinguishing brightly coloured ‘flower’ is not a petal but a modified leaf or bract. The Treasury of Botany published 1876 by Longmans, Green and Co. provides a description rich in floriferous Victorian prose….. ‘The flowers are almost concealed by large membranous or leafy bracts, which grow in triplets and form magnificent masses of paniculate inflorescence. The bracts are large and of a rich rose colour ; hence the inflorescence is singularly handsome.’

Bougainvillea was first collected in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by the French botanist Dr. Philibert Commerson (1727 - 1773) during his voyage of circumnavigation (1766-1769) on board the frigate La Boudeuse. He named the plant for his friend and commander of the ship, Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811). Introduction to gardens in France and England quickly followed its discovery and by 1834 bougainvillea was growing in the large conservatory in Chatsworth, England, the home of plant collector the Duke of Devonshire. The species further migrated to Asia and Australia and by the mid nineteenth century it was available for sale in New Zealand. The Mason Bros of  Auckland listed the plant in their 1873 nursery catalogue. At 2/6d it was amongst the more expensive plants on sale.

Photograph by Anne Marquand
Growing near the Elizabeth Street gate, our bougainvillea certainly is the ‘right plant in the right place’ as in days gone by it was often planted by an entrance way as a sign of welcome to visitors.

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